A Global Fortune 500 company, AkzoNobel is one of the world’s largest paint and coatings manufacturers and also a major producer of specialty chemicals.
With over 55,000 people spread across more than 80 countries, AkzoNobel has a history of mergers and acquisitions that has resulted in a unique collection of very different businesses. But Jeremy Rowe, Managing Director, AkzoNobel Decorative Paints, Southeast Asia and Pacific, says there is now a common thread. “We have taken all the businesses we have got and brought together a common culture,” he says.
The end result is coined “One AkzoNobel”. Rowe describes it as a set of values shared across the diverse businesses: qualities such as “the courage and curiosity to question”, as well as “diversity and inclusion” are all important parts of this common culture.
“We have a high participation rate of women in management, and a high rate of non-Western executives in the management team here in Asia,” says Rowe. “There are few expats in the company here. Out of the 1,500 staff, I can count the number of expats with one hand. Our regional team reflects the diversity of the countries we run.”
He highlights that the company’s mission is to brighten up people’s lives, beginning with its own employees. “Our company’s mission is more than selling paint – it’s bringing colour to the world,” declares Rowe.
“In the emerging market, the key is to get the right talent as there is keen competition,” says Rowe. “It remains our key concern, especially when we are trying to grow. Businesses don’t grow – people grow businesses. So unless you have enough of the right talent, businesses won’t grow.”
But AkzoNobel’s mission to add vitality into its people has been helping to attract talent into the company, notes Rowe.
Through activities such as community painting programmes and heritage building painting projects, its mission is slowly being carried through to the public. Over time, the business then attracts people who like colour, and have an interest in decorating and painting, says Rowe.
He says AkzoNobel has a unique offer for potential recruits. “Not so much compensation and benefits packages, training and development, good pay packages and so on. They are important and of course we provide those, but that is not the differentiating factor,” he notes. “It’s about who the company is and what it stands for, and whether that is in tune with your own personal values and goals in life.”
One key factor that he looks for in its candidates is passion. “Aside from whether their attitudes and whether they can do the job, I personally look for people with a certain passion and excitement. Are they going to pour their hearts into what they do? Because that’s what is going to help them do a better job – frankly, we want them to enjoy their work as well.
“Ultimately, it’s finding a fit between the individual and the company,” he explains. “We always keep in mind that there are hundreds of companies a candidate can join, so we have to ask ourselves what we are offering that others don’t.”
For AkzoNobel, it’s not enough to attract simply talent. It is equally important to develop its people to reach their fullest potential.
The company’s “Leadership Journey” is a passage of self-reflection that involves every single person in the Decorative Paints division. According to Rowe, it is typically a three to five-day activity where people have the time and space to question what they want in their lives, what they want in their careers and how they want to take themselves forward.
“It’s about self-leadership and self-management – it’s not a typical leadership course as it’s not so much about teaching you skills. It’s about getting in contact with yourself and managing yourself. It is based on the principle that if you can’t manage yourself, you can’t manage anybody else.”
The Leadership Journey usually starts with a form of community service, such as painting orphanages, and takes up to a day. The next few days involve self-reflection, group sharing, personal logging and decision making.
“It ends with people writing themselves a letter of what they want to do differently after three days. It can be work, it can be personal – it doesn’t matter,” says Rowe.
Although there is some time spent talking about the business and each participant’s future work plans, it is not a major part. More important is the team camaraderie that the Leadership Journey builds.
“One curious thing about workplaces is that most of us don’t know our colleagues that well. The journey allows people to share their life experiences as much as they want. It’s amazing if you know just a few facts about your colleagues, you will see them in a different light and understand them much better. It is a small investment in time, but it pays greats dividends in people’s collaborative ability to work with each other.”
It has also resulted in better engagement and retention rates, notes Rowe.
“People need to be in tune with themselves, both mentally and physically. We have now proven statistically that people who have gone on the Leadership Journey have high engagement scores which I am sure leads to better retention,” says Rowe.
“Especially in the emerging market, retention is always a challenge as there are so many opportunities in the market place,” he adds.
One aspect that Rowe firmly believes in is the value of a collaborative work culture.
“If we want to solve the biggest problems in the industry, people need to work together for that. It is about making sure people are not constrained by conventional silos at work and ensuring that our people are able to collaborate across functions (and) across businesses. As management, we need to create a supportive environment for that,” he says. However, he also notes that that being collaborative is more time-consuming.
“The quickest way is to be directive, where you tell people what to do and they do it. The slowest way is to put a group of people together in a room and find a solution,” explains Rowe, “The thing about the second solution is that it is better. The second thing is that it would be easier to implement as people have already bought into it. It takes longer, but it results in a better quality solution.”
Because of this belief, Rowe says that staff in the region often fly to meet together and collaborate. Giving employees space to work together and come up with solutions is also Rowe’s personal leadership style.
“My view is that most people do their best work when they are given a broad scope to work with, and the freedom, tools and resources to come up with their own solutions,” he says. “I try to give people a lot of space to do their work, and mentor and coach them along the way. In principle, I try to direct as little as possible to get the best out of people.”
As a leader, Rowe also sees it as his duty to remind people of the big picture. “People work very hard on their day-to-day tasks and sometimes they lose sight of where they are heading. It is my job to remind them of where they are going and where they are. It is more of a mentorship style rather than (that of) a director.”
He also used the example of AkzoNobel’s history of mergers and acquisitions to show that a collaborative work culture is not just talk.
“We started off as independent countries, but there is a desire to build more collaboration across the region. We did not do that by centralising everything. We did that by sitting down and talking about what are some of the similar traits each country had, and coming up with something that was the same across the region,” says Rowe.
The road ahead
Despite the work involved in building a collaborative work culture, Rowe believes that it is all worth it in the end.
“It takes a lot of time talking to people. By the end of the day, I have 500 e-mails and things I haven’t done. It’s making sure I use time wisely both guiding and talking to people, while finding some way to do the tasks that the business demands of you,” he explains.
“It is quite challenging to juggle people, time, and getting through the administration. However, I know that if I spend enough time talking to people in the day, I can be safe in the knowledge that my people are looking after the business.”
AkzoNobel acquired Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Paints in January 2008. Just over a year later, Jeremy Rowe was brought into the company to lead the team as Managing Director for Decorative Paints in Southeast Asia and Pacific.
With his extensive experience in growth and strategy, Jeremy’s top priorities then were to extend the organisation’s leadership in the marketplace and advance the team’s strategic thinking and organisational development. He also worked on steering the team to focus on customer expectations and the need for self-expression.
Prior to joining AkzoNobel, Jeremy provided strategy consulting services, first with Accenture and later as an independent service-provider to an extensive list of clients including Unilever.
Born in Farnham, Surrey in the UK, Rowe graduated from the University of Southampton with First Class Honours in Cosmology, Astronomy and Quantum Physics. He later attained a Masters of Business Administrations with a distinction in Strategy, Finance and Marketing from the London Business School.
Married with two children, Jeremy and his family are now permanent residents of Singapore. His interests include the visual and performing arts, literature, and popular science, as well as fitness, golf and others sports. He plays the piano for relaxation amidst what is generally a hectic schedule.
• I love: Colour
• I dislike: Grey
• My inspirations are: Art, science, and nature
• My biggest strengths are: I trust people to do the right thing. I am also a strategic thinker.
• My weaknesses are: Sometimes I empathise too much with others. Aside from that, ice-cream, chocolates and cakes!
• In five years’ time: I believe that if you do good work, it will take you to interesting places.
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